Hire Slowly; Fire Quickly

That’s a direct quote from Loren Becker from Zappos, speaking at the International Social Media and PR Summit here in Amsterdam.

Hire Slowly

Zappos’ hiring process includes multiple meetings, including informal meetings with groups of colleagues. Part of the company culture includes socialising together so for them it’s important to know that new hires are good to socialise with.

There were some tweets of concern; seeing this as a step too far into the person’s private time, and perhaps disturbing the work/life balance. But I think most people on the hiring side of the equation have a similar test; we’re all looking for “fit”, will this new person work well in our team, and fit the company’s culture.

Maybe the Zappos approach is too extreme for your company, how about the beer test? I recommended this to a colleague who was recruiting a while ago. When you’re interviewing someone ask yourself “on a random evening after work would I have a beer with this guy?” He applied the test, the answer was “no”, and he hired anyway on the basis that he rarely goes for drinks after work so it didn’t matter. But it’s not whether you will actually have that beer, it’s how you feel about doing it. By the way, in his case the hire was a mistake.

Fire Quickly

If you know you’ve made a mistake hiring someone, fire them quickly.

This is easier to put into effect in the US where the principle of “at-will employment” is used, and harder in Europe where there is a stronger social contract between the employer and the employee. But that’s all the more reason to hire slowly, and to use a probation period. It’s important to communicate with the new hire what you expect in the probation period and to make a fair assessment before taking the step to fire someone.

If you don’t take steps to fire someone who doesn’t perform or who really does not fit the culture (I’m not talking quirky, but major behaviour difference) it’s a drain on the team. They see that low performance is tolerated which reduces their motivation, they can also find it difficult to cope with the different behaviour. A highly co-operative team may absorb a highly competitive colleague – until on a bad day she shouts demands at a junior colleague.

So fire quickly, remove what will otherwise become a festering problem in your team. but the best way to avoid having to fire someone, is to hire slowly.

Snail snail /Aleksandar Cocek/ CC BY-SA 2.0
Cheetah Cheetah Run 4 /Gary Eyring/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Those Difficult Conversations

HR processes to protect people from unscrupulous companies. They are perhaps less good at protecting good companies from unscrupulous employees, reflecting the imbalance of power.

I recently heard of a jaw-dropping case of abuse by an employee at a small company. By small I mean fewer than 5 people on the pay roll and a number of volunteers. They manage (among other things) a venue.

A woman, lets call her Angie (because that was not her name), was hired as office manager, her duties included being at the venue every weekday morning from 9 – 1pm, taking calls, answering emails, handling invoices, organising delivery of supplies. Pretty easy number.

For a long time the company director noticed that Angie was not fulfilling her duties. She didn’t seem to be as available as expected during her work hours, work didn’t seem to be done in the time allotted. The director started to suspect that Anglie wasn’t as honest and reliable as she portrayed, but had no evidence to back this up.

So the company director started to manage the performance, she sat down with Angie and in a long and difficult conversation went through all the things expected of Angie during the week; including very specific expectations on availability during the hours she was hired for. Perfect response; as a manager you need to set clear goals together, explain the improvement you need to see, and set a timeline for that improvement to happen. It’s effective feedback for the employee – Angie, and if things do not improve you have taken the first step in a long HR process to address Angie’s contract.

Well it turns out that the reason Angie was not performing her duties is that she has a business of her own. No problem with that in principle but Angie was using work time and work resources to run this business.

This all came to light when the company director turned up for an unannounced visit at the venue and found that Angie was busy with two clients for her own business, and was ignoring the phones and two potential clients who had visited the venue.

Which set the stage for difficult conversation #2; addressing flagrant misconduct.

The director calmly stated that Angie had acted in breach of her contract, and they would now have to address that breach.

Angie became defensive saying “you shouldn’t have come to the office unannounced.”

Some people need a reality check.

So how can you handle such difficult discussions when they are sprung on you?

  • stay calm
  • focus on facts – the agreements made and the actual breach
  • use the “stuck record” technique, repeating your point clearly
  • do not react to any remarks from the employee that might be designed to provoke
  • do not rush to a decision, use language such as “address the breach of contract” to give yourself time to decide on a fair action and involve HR or other parties as needed

If the case is so serious that you think firing is the next step here’s a great step by step guide from Guy Kawasaki, I particularly like his last step.

In this case Angie lost her temper and threatened to resign, to which the director very cleverly responded “you have that choice”, and accepted a written resignation the following day.

image A Difficult Conversation /Timothy Valentine/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0